Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £20
On the morning of 18 November 1910, 300 women marched towards parliament. The names of some of them have resonated throughout the past century: Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female doctor to qualify in England; Hertha Ayrton, the first woman to be accepted into the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Walking alongside them, swathed in furs, was a woman whose name history has forgotten – but in some ways her life was the most dramatic of them all.
Sophia Duleep Singh is the subject of Anita Anand’s vivid and compelling biography. Her father was an Indian maharaja who had been forced to sign his kingdom over to the British as a child and had moved to England, where he lived with Sophia’s mother, a half-German, half-Abyssinian woman he had met in Egypt. Despite the British having robbed him of his inheritance, he enjoyed a close relationship with Queen Victoria for a time and she became Sophia’s godmother.
Sophia’s life seemed destined to be one of ease and comfort but it soon fell apart. Her playboy father bankrupted himself and then when the East India Company refused to pay his debts he plotted to take back his kingdom. He abandoned his family and started a new one in exile with his mistress. Sophia’s pious mother turned to drink and died not long after. Within five years Sophia’s favourite younger brother, Edward, was dead, too, and a year after that her father died in a shabby Paris hotel. He remained undiscovered until the following day.
The princess was spied on for much of her life. As a child, she was watched because of her troublesome father and later because she had become troublesome in her own right. She tried on a number of causes for size. Visiting India for the first time in her twenties, she was deeply shocked by the injustices she saw and flirted with the independence movement. On her return to Britain, she was moved by the plight of the Lascars, cut-price Indian sailors who were exploited and sadistically mistreated by their British employers, and opened a centre that helped thousands of them in urgent need. But it was only when she encountered the suffragettes that Sophia found the struggle that would define the rest of her life.
She threw herself into the cause – fundraising, hosting events – and soon became an enthusiastic lawbreaker. She took part in the suffragette sabotage of the 1911 census, writing across her paper: “As women do not count they refuse to be counted.”
She was one of the early tax resisters, refusing to pay for licences for her dogs and carriage. She ignored all letters demanding payment until she was issued with a fine. Instead, she equipped her lawyer with a disquisition on female suffrage and the injustice of taxation without representation and sent him to court to read it to the judge. Eventually bailiffs turned up at her house and seized a seven-stone diamond ring, worth far more than she owed. But the suffragettes won the war: when the ring came up at auction, they flooded the auction house and refused to bid for it until the auctioneer was forced to lower the starting bid to £10 – at which price it was bought by a suffragette and returned to Sophia, amid rapturous applause.
Sophia marched on parliament with her fellow suffragettes in 1910 after Herbert Asquith, the prime minister, in effect killed off the Conciliation Bill, which granted partial suffrage to women. They planned to march in a show of strength – but it became a show of police brutality, one that Anand describes in horrifying detail. Women were knocked to the ground and sexually assaulted, their breasts grabbed, their clothes ripped and their skirts lifted as knees found their groins. Sophia was arrested along with 115 other women and four men but not before she had inserted herself between a police officer and a suffragette whom he was knocking repeatedly to the ground. She wrote to Winston Churchill about Constable V700’s brutality but he was unmoved: after several letters had been exchanged, the then home secretary annotated her file with the terse comment: “Send no further reply to her.”
Anand writes with the vigour and imaginative reach of a novelist. The many horrors of her enthralling narrative are lightened with judicious flashes of dry wit and a fine eye for detail. Sophia is a superb addition to the suffragette account, weaving together the fight for Indian independence with the struggle for female emancipation in a gripping, emotionally powerful story.
As Sophia’s life drew to an end after the Second World War, she addressed her beloved Drovna, daughter of her housekeeper: “I want a solemn promise from you. You are never, ever not to vote. You must promise me. When you are allowed to vote, you are never, ever to fail to do so. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.” By this point, we feel we know Sophia so well that to disobey would be a personal betrayal.